WKU student praises hands-on learning at the university, from community gardening to sophisticated chemical analyses

Like many undergraduates at WKU, Ryan St. Clair’s undergraduate experience involved an array of different part-time jobs, internships and extracurricular activities. But Ryan says one common theme can describe each and every one of his activities here: hands-on experience, which has been instrumental in helping him find a successful career path post-graduation.

Ryan came to WKU with an interest in chemistry, and was quickly encouraged to upgrade his math minor to a second major. The theme of “hands-on experience” began here.

“As soon as I started to find joy in my chemistry and math classes, I was able to take on tutoring and being a Teaching Assistant for these classes,” Ryan says. “There is so much value in being able to teach course material you once learned to other students–it allows you to learn the course in a whole new way, and to apply these learnings to actual lab work outside of the classroom.”

Ryan will graduate this May and has accepted an offer as an Analytical Technician for Kentucky-based, Alumni-founded KYBlu, a scientific research and development firm. The resources, mentorship and hands-on experience available to support his learning outside of the classroom were simply invaluable in helping him secure this first step in a career he is passionate about.

Expanding hands-on learning to the local community

Ryan didn’t immediately know chemistry would become his passion. “I came to WKU ready to explore so many of my interests, one of which was plants and gardening,” Ryan says.

This is when he came across WKU’s Horticulture Club, which allows students access to a vast greenhouse where they can plant, propagate and care for hundreds of plant species. After his first year in the club, Ryan became a greenhouse manager for two years, and is now the club’s President.

Once again, the theme of hands-on experience prevails even in this extracurricular experience: not only did Ryan learn to plant and grow his own garden, but the club has also formed relationships with local housing authorities to foster this same knowledge among underprivileged communities.

“Within the Horticulture Club I was able to be part of planting multiple community gardens, which is so important in supporting the health of communities,” Ryan says. “The gardens we plant in partnership with the housing authority provide fresh fruit and vegetables for communities in need. Unlike mass-produced food often found in grocery stores, this food isn’t grown with harsh chemicals or pesticides, and isn’t shipped across long distances to reach these communities–which not only affects freshness but is also harmful for the environment.”

Thus, this initiative not only allowed Ryan to gain hands-on experience himself, but to pass on these learnings to local community members who now have the skills to maintain their own gardens and lead healthier lives.

Ryan St. Clair and a fellow WKU student partnering with Hope Harbor, a local organization supporting victims of sexual abuse, to grow a local therapeutic garden.

Expanding learnings from the classroom into the lab and beyond

Once it became clear that Ryan was truly passionate about chemistry, he began to seek experience in a research lab. At the Advanced Materials Institute, Pauline Norris saw Ryan’s passion and offered him a unique position learning how to perform a variety of chemical analyses.

The Advanced Materials Institute is part of WKU’s Center for Research and Development (CRD), and it offers access to critical lab instruments and expertise for chemical analyses that is often too expensive for individual labs or business to access themselves. While traditional research projects often allow students to perfect a small set of lab skills in support of one line of research, Ryan’s work at the Materials Institute allowed him to build multiple skillsets to meet the needs of many of the CRD’s clients.

“The variety of analyses we perform at the Advanced Materials Institute is simply amazing,” Ryan says. One analysis Ryan assisted with was for WKU’s Crawford Hydrology Lab, which was looking to analyze samples of groundwater from Kentucky’s famous underground cave system to understand pollution, erosion and other key sample characteristics. Another analysis Ryan assisted with was in support of Daicel Safety Systems America, which was testing propellants for its life-saving airbag inflation technology for vehicles.

A student working with one of the many scientific instruments supporting analyses performed at the Advanced Materials Institute.

It was in this hands-on environment that Ryan was also introduced to his current employer, KYBlu. During a small dinner held for the labs at the CRD, Ryan was introduced to his hiring manager at Blu. Having gained so much experience in chemical analyses at the Advanced Materials Institute, shortly thereafter he began an internship with KYBlu that allowed him to exercise the skills he had learned for an entirely new project.

“My time at the Advanced Materials Institute helped me learn about so many instruments in the lab and all the analyses that can be performed with them,” Ryan says. “Now with KYBlu, I am able to apply these skills to new research in a full-time job in a way that has the potential to positively impact lives. I came to WKU with several interests, and the support I have gotten here has grown these interests into a passion for chemistry.”

From math tutoring, to community gardening, to sophisticated chemical analyses, Ryan’s hands-on experience at WKU has landed him a first step in a career that he is deeply passionate about.

To learn more about the WKU Center for Research and Development, please visit https://www.wku.edu/crd/.